Raleigh doctor reflects on danger of working in the Middle East

Raleigh physician has seen danger firsthand but still plans to return

mcaulder@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2012 

Dr. Randall Williams in the Baghdad Hospital.


— A Triangle doctor was traveling home from Baghdad on Sunday as Afghan and coalition forces rescued another American doctor from Taliban captors who kidnapped him on his way to a rural medical clinic in the Sorobi Desert of Afghanistan.

The Taliban were presumably holding Dr. Dilip Joseph for ransom, according to The Associated Press. One American service member was killed in the rescue operation.

However, Joseph’s kidnapping last Wednesday won’t keep Dr. Randall Williams from returning to Libya and Iraq in the spring.

Williams, who has been practicing medicine in Raleigh since 1989, has grown accustomed to the danger he faces as a medical aid worker in the Middle East.

“When we were in Iraq, for many years there were explosions we could always hear,” Williams said. “You got used to the idea of how things were.”

Williams recalls his closest run-in with danger. He was attacked with small arms and rocket fire focused on the front entrance of the hotel where he was staying in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“I do it because, for many of the people that I work with, they see a lousy side of life and human nature and I think we show them the other side.” Williams said that is the mantra of many doctors he’s worked with to provide foreign aid.

“We’ve lost some friends over there, and we feel a strong commitment to carry on their work,” he said.

Williams remembers the loss of colleague Dr. Tom Little and 10 others who died in 2010 when they were ambushed by Taliban forces after hiking to a remote and very volatile area in Afghanistan to provide medical aid.

On his latest trip to Baghdad, Williams, and three other doctors with the International Medical Corps, taught surgical skills to Iraqi physicians and lectured on a wide variety of medical topics.

Since he began his foreign aid work, he has noticed a shift in how humanitarian workers are treated in the Middle East.

“Humanitarian aid workers are clearly targeted, and I think that is a huge problem,” Williams said.

He estimates that a third of each dollar for the foreign aid trips is spent to provide security for the volunteers.

In Iraq, Williams is protected by a security force provided by the International Medical Corps.

“The same men have protected us for nine years and words can’t express my appreciation for them,” Williams said in an email.

He was in Libya with no security detail just two weeks before U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed. When he returns in the spring, he will have the protection of a Libyan militia, he said.

Williams said it takes a certain kind of person to work in the Middle East. It’s an ever-changing environment in which all plans must be infinitely adaptable.

“You show up to leave and the plane cannot be there and they don’t know why,” he said.

Caulder: 919-829-4758

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